Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Misalliance, by Anita Brookner

Here is one of the many things I love about Anita Brookner - she didn't publish her first novel until she was 56! For those of us still hoping to make a bold and successful career move in middle age this is very heartening. Well, okay, maybe she'd already had a great academic career prior to becoming a novelist, but still...

There are many things to love about The Misalliance. Foremost is the prose, so carefully and elegantly crafted. Honestly it makes me feel smarter just to read such well-written language. This is my favorite phrase: "...vainly seeking transcendence, or at least translation, in whatever wine happened to be available that evening." I literally sighed with pleasure while reading this novel.

Second are the beautifully elucidated characters. Many are almost easy to dismiss as annoying, manipulative or arrogant. But for each there is at least one heart-twisting moment in which we see that they are flawed, and so deserve a measure of compassion.

Third is the plaintive question at the center of the book - what is it that makes men want (and continue to want) the women they choose? I happen to love novels in which the characters do a lot of soul-searching and come to many startling and profound conclusions about their personalities, so this one was right up my alley.

Where I heard about this book: I found it while browsing at the library. I'd been meaning to read something by Anita Brookner and there it was.

What I thought of this book
: Great! 4 1/2 stars

What this book is about: A middle-aged, middle-class British woman who has been divorced for about a year. She struggles to fill her days with appropriate, even meaningful, activity. A chance meeting with a small child and her disorganized mother inspires her to come to some conclusions about herself and about romantic relationships in general.

Monday, January 18, 2010

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larson

Honestly, I don't really get what all the fuss is about. I thought this book was good, and I love the glimpse into Swedish life, but the main mystery seemed far-fetched, and the subplots somewhat tiresome. I was enthralled by Lisbeth Salander at first, but she seemed more and more two dimensional and less and less believable as the novel progressed. In general this book was, to me, like so many thoroughbreds - quick out of the gates but slower and slower on the turns until they're merely trotting to the finish.

Where I heard about this book
: Umm... everywhere?

What I thought of this book
: It was good. 3 1/2 stars.

What this book is about
: A murder mystery set in Sweden.

Here are the two things I loved most about this book: The author pays homage to his favorite crime writers by mentioning that the main character is reading their books. This same character is constantly eating fantastic-sounding Swedish snacks featuring things like pickles, eggs and herring. Overall it made me really want to travel to Scandanavia; it sound gorgeous and sane, and is everyone there really so practical and smart?

Monday, January 4, 2010

The Interrogative Mood, by Padgett Powell

Where did Padgett Powell learn to form such elegant sentences, interrogative or otherwise? When reading such beautifully crafted prose it is a toss-up, to me, whether the joy resides in the story or the language itself. That said, this book has no story. It consists of 164 pages of questions; the reader must decide whether or not there is a narrative contained within this structure.

Where I heard about this book: It got a lot of press when it came out, and I've now heard and read about it in various places, though I have yet to speak to anyone else who has read it.

What I thought of this book
: I loved it. Many stars.

What this book is about
: Difficult to say. I would say that it is equally about the author and the reader, without any pesky characters interfering. The questions posed cover a wide variety of topics, some of which come up repeatedly. They are particular to the author, and to the era in which he has lived, and will be of varying relevance and interest to his audience. An inherent dialogue is formed between reader and writer that is unusual in a novel. These questions do not necessarily beg answers; I found that there were some I pondered, some I merely noted, and many that stirred thoughts that I didn't take much time to examine as I flew past to the next.

* A note a week after reading this book: It won't leave me alone! It pops into my head at least once, often several, times a day. Love books with staying power...

Here's and interview with the man himself embedded in a story about the book.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, by Jean-Dominique Bauby

This is one of my very favorite books. If I had my way this would be required reading for everyone, as lessons in both elegant use of language and grace under extreme circumstances.

I recently bought this for a friend, and as it's quite small I was able to read it again in just a few hours. I must have first read it soon after it came out, in 1997. In fact I have it firmly intertwined with memories of my first home in Portland, but as the book was not yet published when I lived there that must be yet another unintentional autobiographical falsification. Or hallucination? I do remember quite clearly being devastated upon learning that Bauby had died soon after the book was published.

Where I heard about this book
: Hard to say, after all these years, but most likely NPR.

What I thought of this book
: At the risk of being effusive, I think that it is worthy of all the stars in the firmament.

What this book is about
: It is the memoir of a man who has suffered a stroke. He is completely intact mentally and emotionally, but is only able to communicate with the world by blinking one eye. He's got a lot to say, but must spell it out painstakingly letter by letter with the help of an assistant. Making him one of the great editors of all time.